Thursday, 25 August 2011

Locke & Key Vol.4: Keys To The Kingdom HC

Locke & Key is a horror / fantasy series written by Joe Hill, who is the son of Stephen King, and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, who I’m sure comes from a good family, too.  The series is about the Locke kids, Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, who have recently moved to the Keyhouse in the town of Lovecraft, Massachusetts, along with their mother, where they keep finding magical keys.  These keys include the ‘Ghost Key’, which turns the user into a ghost, the ‘Head Key’, which allows the user to literally open the top of his or her head and insert knowledge (by putting in books, etc.) or remove memories and emotions, the ‘Anywhere Key’, which allows the user to travel anywhere they wish to go, and so on.  These keys have something to do with their late father, although we don’t know the full story behind the keys yet, and there is also some kind of demon, disguised as a teenage boy called Zack, who has befriended the Locke kids and is after the most powerful key of all, the ‘Omega Key’, which will open the black door and let through many more demons.  Or something like that.  This may or may not sound corny to you – I certainly think the title of the series, Locke & Key, is very corny, as is setting a horror series in a town called Lovecraft – but it is actually very well written, beautifully drawn, and it’s a series I would happily recommend to more or less anyone.

This fourth volume in the series introduces several more keys and offers a slight change of pace.  All six of the comics collected here continue the main storyline, but four of them are relatively self-contained, and Hill and Rodriguez use some of these issues to experiment with some new storytelling techniques.  The first issue, in which the youngest Locke sibling, Bode, discovers the ‘Beast Key’ and is transformed into a sparrow, is a tribute to Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, with four panels on each page, sitting over a larger splash image, in the style of a newspaper strip.  Bode’s pages, at least, are drawn in a more cartoony style, with the last panel on each page containing some kind of a punchline, or at least a turning point in the story, and it’s a clever issue.  The second issue doesn’t really try anything new stylistically.  Here, Hill and Bode look at the issue of race, when Kinsey and Bode discover the ‘Skin Key’ and turn themselves black so that they can visit a black nursing home resident who knew their father but apparently dislikes white people.  This is a really good issue, and a tense one, too, as Zack also pays the nursing home a visit - with knives! - while the kids are there.  The third issue, entitled ‘February’, is another clever one, with the action taking place over the course of a month, with no more than a page or so given over to any one day of that month.  The scrapes that the kids get themselves into with various new keys are given no more than one (often amusing) panel each, with no explanation for what is going on, while the bulk of the story focuses on the negative effect that Kinsey’s experiments with the ‘Head Key’ have on her friends, and Tyler’s break-up with his girlfriend.  The fourth issue focuses on one of my favourite characters, Rufus, a mentally handicapped boy who is obsessed with war, and his toy soldiers.  Rufus, is seems, can see and talk to ghosts, and here he spends most of the issue talking to the ghost of the man who killed the Locke kids’ dad, who appears to him dressed as a soldier and tells him a few of Zack’s secrets.  Parts of this issue are made to look like an old war comic – a war comic in which the characters are Rufus, Bode and their toy soldiers (and a monkey, and a robot) – but most of the issue is made up of exposition.  Then we get to the two-part story that closes the book, in which the Locke kids finally discover that Zack is not all he seems to be, and the bloody, shocking ending left me very impatient to read the next volume, which probably won’t be out until next year.  All in all, this was another enjoyable volume in this enjoyable series.

Cost: This has a recommended retail price of £18.99 / $24.99.  It is currently available on Amazon for £10.82, but I bought my copy in my local comic shop – The Grinning Demon in Maidstone – several weeks ago now, and paid £20.00.  Yes, that’s right, I actually paid £1.01 more than the recommended retail price for this book, which isn’t like me at all, but the owner of my local comic shop is so bloody friendly that, when I saw this sitting on the shelves in there, on the day of its release, I just couldn’t resist it.  I do now feel a bit stupid for paying over the odds for this book, but I also feel good about supporting my local comic shop for a change, rather than a big – possibly evil – online retailer.  Mmm, I may have to rethink this ‘on the ration’ lark.  


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Rasl issues 1 to 11

Rasl is a sci-fi series by Jeff Smith, the creator of Bone.  I must admit that I lost interest in Bone fairly quickly.  The art was great and the first two books I read were very funny indeed, but I seem to remember that subsequent volumes were much less amusing, with the focus shifting from humour to Lord-of-the-Rings-style fantasy, which isn’t really my sort of thing, and I gave up on the series long before the end.  I think I may have been a bit hasty, and I’d be interested in giving Bone another chance now that it is complete and available in a variety of different formats, but I reckon I’d still lose interest after I’d got past the first couple of volumes and have to force my way to the end.  Only eleven issues of Rasl have been released so far, and I may eventually lose interest in this series, too, but so far it seems pretty great.

The story starts with our hero, Rasl, travelling to a parallel universe to steal an original Picasso painting, and then inadvertently fleeing back to yet another parallel universe – a universe where things are much the same as they are on our world, except Bob Dylan releases records under his given name, Robert Zimmerman – rather than the universe he started in.  Rasl is attacked by a lizard-faced man who shoots a hole in his purloined Picasso, and after following him back home, kills his prostitute girlfriend.  This is not just a crime drama with a sci-fi twist, though, and we soon find out that Rasl is more than a common thief.  The lizard-faced man is after the hidden notebooks of Nikola Tesla, which former scientist Rasl has in his possession, and the secrets hidden in these notebooks could destroy the universe.  In some ways, these comics reminded me of Cerebus, back when it was still good – for me, Cerebus was at its best up until the end of Church and State – as Smith occasionally gives us large chunks of historical information which threaten to reveal the bigger picture, but just when we think we are going to find out what is really going on, the pace changes and Rasl begins a romance with an alternative universe version of one of his dead lovers, or else encounters some offbeat characters, such as the creepy little girl who may or may not be god, or else just has another long fight with the lizard-faced man.  These comics are quick to read but the story unfolds slowly.  If I had been reading these as they were released, with a long wait between issues, I may have gotten bored and given up, but read in one big chunk I found these comics thoroughly enjoyable and quite engrossing.  And Smith’s art is fantastic, too.  I mean, his art was great on Bone, but here it is even better, and it often made me think of the work of Jaime Hernandez, but with a touch of Paul Pope thrown in for good measure (and I don’t think I’m just saying that because Rasl himself looks a bit like photos I’ve seen of Paul Pope).

Cost: I actually downloaded these comics from Comixology, several weeks ago, when they were on sale.  The first issue was (and still is) free to download and issues two to eleven were reduced from $1.99 to $0.99c each (they have since gone back up to $1.99 each).  According to my credit card bill, then, these comics ended up costing me £6.29, which isn’t bad at all for eleven comics that would have cost me over £3.00 each to buy from my local comic shop.  I read these on my iPod Touch, and enjoyed reading them that way, although it was difficult to flick back through them for review purposes – so I didn’t really bother, which explains any inaccuracies in this review – and my preference is still for printed graphic novels, even if I do prefer digital comics to printed periodical comics these days.  I may continue to buy this series digitally, but I enjoyed reading this story in big chunks a lot and am tempted to start buying the slim-but-oversized collections that are available instead.               

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Batman - Cacophony / The Widening Gyre

It's gotten to the stage where I just can't bring myself to spend money on DC comics any more, as (Hellblazer excepted) I'm so often disappointed in them. I still like a lot of the characters though and will keep trying new books in the hope that some of what I liked about those characters in years gone by will be recaptured by today's creators. But until I find a new DC comic that knocks my socks off, I've vowed to limit my reading to the truest form of On The Ration-ing... picking them up from my local library.

However, these two DC books seemed like a good bet. Bruce Wayne is my favourite of the big DC heroes and I've long enjoyed the work (both comics and films) of geek-made-good Kevin Smith, even though he does seem somewhat past his prime these days. After enjoyable runs on DC's Green Arrow and Marvel's Daredevil 10+ years ago, he's been absent from mainstream comics for a while (or when he has turned up, he's failed to finish the stories he's started), but his return to Batman was much-trumpeted. So I thought I'd give it a go.

It's probably a good job I took both books out of the library at the same time as had I just loaned Cacophony, I might not have gone back for its far more interesting sequel. The first book features the return of a masked psychopath introduced in Smith's Green Arrow, a rogue who seems far more suited to Batman's gallery of gimmicky nutcases in that he speaks only in sound effects. Blam! Shik! Boom! You get the picture. He's a fun character, but not really arch-nemesis material, but Smith has that taken care of by focusing much of this book's attention on a gang war between the Joker and Maxie Zeus. At times, Cacophony feels more like a Joker book than a Batman one - and had it been promoted as such, I might not have been so annoyed by some of the jokes. Smith's sense of humour is notoriously juvenile and scatological, and there are many such gags here (including one about anal rape) which just seem out of place in a Batman comic. I've no problem with the jokes themselves and much of Smith's dialogue is witty... it just seems out of place.

The Widening Gyre is a far more satisfying read, although I was unaware when I started it that there's actually a huge To Be Continued... at the end, which also caused me some major problems.

Before that though, Smith pulls his finger out and delivers one of the better Batman stories I've read in recent years. A mysterious new vigilante called Baphomet arrives in Gotham and Batman has to decide whether to trust him. Meanwhile Bruce Wayne's old girlfriend Silver St. Cloud shows up and Smith gives us the happiest Batman I've read since Alan Davis was drawing the character. It's actually quite refreshing, with loads of colourful flashbacks to different periods in Bat-history, and the most human Bruce Wayne we've seen since Frank Miller darkened the knight. But enjoyable as it is, it starts to feel wrong after a while. It's like in On Her Majesty's Secret Service where James Bond finds true love and gets married... you want Bond to be happy, but you know he'll stop being the character you enjoy. And just as in OHMSS, and just as in Smith's own run on Daredevil, a necessary tragedy is waiting just around the corner...

Which is where the first volume of The Widening Gyre concludes: on a shocking moment of violence and an "unexpected plot twist" that Smith confidently asserts (in the afterword) no one saw coming. Well, I hate to break it to you, Kev: I did. I'm reminded of the first time I saw The Sixth Sense and about ten minutes into the film I thought, "I do hope Bruce Willis isn't dead". (Oh, sod off, I've not spoilered it - if you haven't seen The Sixth Sense yet, you never will.) Only it's worse than that here. I actually guessed the twist of The Widening Gyre even before I started reading it. Merely scanning the plot synopsis on the back cover after reading Cacophony, I thought "I bet XXXXXXXXXX". And sure enough, I was right on the money.

Lack of surprise and uncharacteristic Batman aside, I still enjoyed TWG and look forward to reading the rest the story when it finally arrives in my local library. The art by Smith's comic shop owning cohort (and Clerks bit-parter) Walt Flanagan is inconsistent but improves with every issue. He does draws far better women than men, and thankfully non-cheesecakey women at that. And the dialogue has enough depth, wit and "why has nobody ever asked Batman that?" moments to keep me smiling throughout. It's definitely a more mainstream and less impenetrable Batman saga than the one Grant Morrison's currently writing in the proper Batbooks, and self-contained too - not a Black Lantern or Infinite Crisis in sight.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Hansi the Girl Who Loved the Swastika / The Cross and the Switchblade

These awesome comics were published in the early seventies (1972 / 1973) by Spire Christian Comics, and were the work of former Archie artist Al Hartley, a born again Christian.  There were quite a few titles in the Spire Christian Comics line – at least 57, as far as I can tell – most of them written and drawn by Hartley.  Some featured the various Archie characters, others were adaptations of bible stories, and others (like these two) adapted Christian novels.  After looking at lists of the other Spire comics available, I reckon I have managed to pick up two of the best titles – by which I mean that they have the funniest titles – although I would definitely be interested in picking up copies of ‘God’s Smuggler’, ‘He’s The Greatest’ (the story of Jesus), and ‘Jughead’s Soul Food’, and I would probably donate a testicle for a copy of ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’.

‘Hansi , The Girl Who Loved The Swastika’, is the story of a young girl (Hansi) who turns her back on Jesus and joins the Hitler youth after the Nazis arrive in Sudetenland in 1938.  Hansi soon turns into a cold-hearted, wide-eyed robot, who is proud to be living on rations ‘for Germany’s great future’, dismisses the suffering of blinded German soldiers while working as a nurse (Soldier: ‘I lost my ideals when I lost my eyes on the Russian front!’  Nurse Hansi: ‘We are nothing--- The Reich is everything!’), and spurns the advances of all men (‘I’m pure!  And I’m going to stay pure!’).  Even after the war, when Hansi ends up in a Russian labour camp where all the other women are repeatedly raped by soldiers every night, she manages to remain pure, because the soldiers think that young, pretty Hansi is too skinny.

After escaping the Russian labour camp with her purity intact, Hansi is rescued by American soldiers and is surprised to find that not all soldiers are fussy rapists, just Russian soldiers.  Later, she is reunited with her childhood sweetheart, who she feared dead at sea, and they marry, but there is still something missing in their lives.  Then, one day, her husband brings home a bible and Hansi reluctantly (at first) re-embraces the word of God.  Eventually, they have children (by this point, I’m assuming that Hansi is no longer pure – the filthy slut!) and move to America, where Hansi, now working as a teacher, is shocked by all the litter, obesity levels, and the proliferation of consumer goods.  ‘I wonder---,’ says Hansi, ‘do all these things obscure God’s blessings???  Is that why so many of my students are troubled???’  However, while listening to the American national anthem, Hansi hears the line ‘one nation under God’ and realises that it’s okay to love America, as unlike Nazi Germany, America has been blessed by God, and ‘it’s all right to love what God has blessed!’  She then dedicates her life to helping young people to find God, visiting prisons, and shit like that.

‘The Cross and the Switchblade’ is another corker, although it was never going to be as good as its hilarious cover promised.  This cover shows a bland looking teenage hoodlum holding up a preacher at knifepoint, saying: ‘I could kill you, preach!’  To which the preacher replies: ‘Yes, you could, Nicky!  You could cut me up in a thousand pieces!  And every piece will say I love you!’ 

The story is about a preacher who abandons his pregnant wife with her blessing, and the blessing of his congregation, who even have a whip-round for him, and heads to sleazy New York to sort out the gang problem - with God’s help, of course.  Dismissed by the authorities, he soon finds himself hanging around with teenage gangs and heroin addicts, and eventually wins them over when he manages to convert the toughest gang member, Nicky, and convinces him to throw away his grass and become a preacher, using tactics such as love and irrefutable logic (Nicky: ‘How can I trust something I can’t see or feel?’  Preacher: ‘If you could see it and feel it, it wouldn’t require any faith!  But God wants you to live by faith!’).

The artwork in both comics is a little bland but actually pretty good.  The art in ‘Hansi’ is blandest, and way too cute for a story about Nazi Germany and Russian rape camps.  The weirdest thing about it, though, is that, even though the story takes place over several decades, Hansi doesn’t seem to age at all.  Towards the end of the comic, she visits some prisoners in an American prison and tells them about her escape from the Russians and her first encounter with American soldiers.  She says: ‘None of you were born then--- but maybe your dad was there that morning!’, which makes me think that Hansi is supposed to be pretty old at this point, but she still looks just like a 12-year-old girl!  The art in ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’ is more stylish, and even has a touch of Steve Ditko about it, but it really is just a touch and mainly it looks like the art in an Archie comic, which also doesn’t look right in a story about gang violence and drug addiction (that reminds me, I really must look out for a copy of that ‘Archie Vs The Punisher’ comic that came out in the ‘90s).  Ever wanted to see Veronica from Betty and Veronica on heroin, or see an Archie character say the ‘N’ word?  Then look out for a copy of ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’ and your dreams will come true.

Cost:  I bought these comics from a woman my sister put me in touch with after she saw her selling comics at a car boot sale.  I went to her house on Saturday and spent an hour or so rummaging through piles of ‘80s and ‘90s crap, only managed to find ten comics I actually wanted to buy, and even a few of those I had to think about.  These two, however, leapt out at me and begged to be bought.  Was God calling to me?  I doubt it.  I am not religious (in case you haven’t already worked that out) and doubt I ever will be, but I will happily add these two curiosities to my comic collection and think they were well worth the £1.00 each I paid for them.